Japan owes a lot to China, there’s no doubt about that.

Almost all Japanese kanji were adopted from Chinese characters. Even hiragana and katakana are just random modified bits of Chinese characters.

hiragana and katakana origins

Image sources: 1, 2

Buddhism, although it has begun to diminish somewhat, is still the second most popular religion in Japan, and it came via China (oh all right, via China then Korea if you want to nitpick). The behavior of Japanese society is also steeped in Chinese influence: the emphasis on hard work, and the hierarchical nature of gendered language and honorifics? You can thank Confucius for all that. Even the word “Japan” is Chinese in origin!

If you’ve read my articles you might have noticed that beyond just “what” I’ve got a hankering for “why” as well – so why the massive Chinese influence in Japan? Given the animosity between the two countries nowadays, you’d think that anything Chinese would have had a hard time even getting in edgewise.

Finally, though, I think I’ve found the answer: it’s all thanks to Japan’s possibly least known overachiever, Shotoku Taishi (聖徳太子).

Shotoku Taishi portrait

A Lesser Known Holy War: Shinto vs Buddhism

The two main religions in Japan are Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto came first, and Buddhism was at one time barely even tolerated. I can see why the Shintoists felt threatened, though: the emperor’s right to rule stems from the Shinto belief that he is the direct descendant of Amaterasu (天照大神), the sun goddess.

Eventually, the enmity between the Shinto and Buddhist clans came to a head. Several Buddhist temples were set on fire, and statues of the Buddha were thrown into a canal – and the person responsible? The high-ranking Mononobe no Moriya (物部守屋), a staunch opponent of Buddhism. This incident sparked a war; long story short, the Buddhists won, and among their ranks was the 13-year-old Shotoku.

shootoku killing mononobe no moriya

Shotoku giving it to Mononobe right in the face!

At the time, Shotoku was actually still called Umayado Ouji (厩戸皇子) or “stable door prince,” because he was born unexpectedly while his mother was inspecting the imperial stable. In any case, his unorthodox birth didn’t seem to do him any harm: besides being strong and brave he was also prodigiously intelligent. These qualities sufficiently impressed the right people, and he was made regent when he was just 19.

Of course, a seemingly neutral figurehead was still required to maintain order, so Japan’s first empress since legendary times was appointed. But make no mistake, Empress Suiko was just a puppet. Any real power lay with the regent, and Shotoku would use this power to shape Japan and Japanese as we know it today.

Reformation Man and the Making of Nihon

At the time, and this is a really, really long time ago (we’re talking the late 500s here), the Japanese were largely a backward and illiterate bunch. They were completely behind the Koreans in just about everything – because unlike the Koreans, they did not embrace the Chinese advances in writing, carpentry, metallurgy, and so on, nor did they take a liking to Buddhism.

Once Shotoku came along though, that all changed. Being Buddhist himself, he made sure that Buddhism would flourish in Japan. Empress Suiko ordered the aristocracy to be tolerant of Buddhism at his request. But he was no extremist – he recognized that Shinto’s agricultural rites did not conflict with Buddhism, and the two religions could therefore mutually exist. Lead and they will follow, as the saying goes, and once the Shinto clans realized that Buddhism was no threat, they too started to accept it. Boom! Second most popular religion it is.

kumano nachi taisha

Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社) in Wakayama Prefecture is an example of Buddhist and Shinto syncretism: kind of like having a church and a mosque housed in the same building.

Shotoku was a scholar too, and unusually for his time, completely fluent in Chinese. He was well-read in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, astronomy, and geography, and he issued Japan’s first legal document in 604. It was a list of moral instructions that drew heavily on Buddhism and Confucianism, and described the ideal Japanese society. For example, officials were expected to work hard – just think of the long, long hours of the average Japanese salaryman nowadays!

Even the name Nihon (日本) was allegedly coined by Shotoku. In 607, he sent diplomats, monks and scholars to China with a written message for the Chinese emperor. The message began with a salutation that went something like, “The ruler of the Land of the Rising Sun addresses the ruler of the Land of the Setting Sun,” in reference to the relative locations of the two countries, and is the first written account where Japan is referred to as Nihon.

The 607 mission to China was more than just a goma-suri (胡麻すり) or ass-kissing exercise. The monks and scholars that accompanied the diplomats were actually there to absorb all they could, and then return to Japan and apply what they had learned. Among a whole host of other things, they brought Chinese writing back with them – and eventually, these Chinese characters would become part and parcel of the Japanese language.

Shotoku Taishi wooden statue

Besides adopting Chinese writing, law, architecture and other “serious” things, the Japanese adopted more frivolous stuff too. This statue of Shotoku shows him with a very Chinese-looking headpiece, clothes, and facial hair style.

What Have You Done Today to Make You Feel Proud?

Shotoku was only 48 when he fell ill and died, but in his short life I think he did more than anyone else to make Japan and Japanese what they are today. War veteran by 13, regent by 19, a great statesman and scholar… and by opening the door to Chinese influence, he allowed the widespread adoption of Buddhism, the use of Chinese characters in the Japanese language, and set the tone for the Japanese mindset and Japanese society.

I think Shotoku’s life is equal parts inspiring and depressing. He achieved so much, yet outside of Japan he seems hardly known at all. This is true on a personal level too: his life makes me want to give 110% in everything I do, yet I know I won’t come anywhere near what he achieved. Like, ruler of the land by 19? When I was that age I could hardly even turn up to lectures on time.

Header image by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

  • zoomingjapan

    Absolutely great post!
    When I saw the headline I already thought it wasn’t any of the boys who wrote today’s article. *g*

    Where are all these adorable post banners coming from recently?? Love them!!!


    48 is still quite a long life considering the century he lived.

  • Ricardo Caicedo

    The print with shotoku shooting an arrow is awesome. Thanks for this post, I had never heard of Shotoku before but I’m a fan of him now.

  • Hashi

    The post banners are by Aya, our wonderful illustrator!

  • zoomingjapan

    Cool! You have your own illustrator!
    I really love the banners. I hope she will continue to provide them! :)

  • William Sumners

    Fiona’s avatar is fairly cute.

    Erm, in relation to the article, Japan has a curious little culture. I wonder how much of it is actually of Chinese origins.

  • koichi

    lots and lots… at least in terms of the root.

  • ジョサイア

    But she’s holding a 化け猫! D:

  • WhiteRice

    Sorry to nitpick, but Buddhism came from India then spread to the east, even though Buddhism did not become popular in India.

  • koichi

    keke, I was going to nitpick but you beat me to it!

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    That’s a fair point: via India then China then Korea then Japan it is! ^_^

    But it was the Chinese translations of the sutras that really changed Japan – because to be able to read them, the Japanese had to learn Chinese. This not only encouraged the uptake of hanzi in Japan, but also allowed the Japanese to read/learn/apply all the other Chinese advancements in law, physics, astronomy etc too.

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    I can take no credit for the avatar, it was Viet’s idea ^_-

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    That’s true!

    But I suspect the average lifespan of the aristocracy was much higher than the overall average. Ieyasu lived to be 73 (in the Edo period), after all. However I haven’t found any stats for Shotoku’s era (Asuka period), so don’t quote me on that one ^_^

  • mkrause

    Great writing! Fiona is quickly becoming my favorite author on this site. Overall her posts seem to be a little less fluff and a little more substance.

  • Robert Patrick

    Great post, but one thing to keep in mind when you talk about “spreading this” and “spreading that” in Japan : until the 19th century (meiji era), most of people were illiterate in Japan. Only the court, the daimyô and the priest knew how to read and write until the 16th century. All other were peasants, so when something was “spreading”, it was spreading to a very limited number of people.

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    I agree, but with one caveat: it “spread” to only a small number of people, but those were the “right” people.

    This really is oversimplifying things, but anyway: Korea used Chinese too until hangul came along, thanks to Sejong the Great. He was only one person, but he also happened to be king, which I think really helped his and hangul’s cause despite initial opposition.

  • キツネじゃない

    Yeah, but those kind of things are harmless to humans. Things like 化け猫, and especially 狐, are actually great with humans. Marriage material, even!

  • Hinoema

    IIRC, it was the Chinese translations that allowed Buddhism to flourish as it did, really. I seem to recall reading that Buddhism had been on the decline in India and that its embrace (and, in a way, legitimization to many) by China gave it a huge shot in the arm..

  • Hinoema

    “I agree, but with one caveat: it “spread” to only a small number of people, but those were the “right” people.”

    Exactly. It only needs to spread to the people who dictate the societal norms and acceptable socio-religious practices to have a huge impact.

  • HatsuHazama

    I’m having a very strange image of this religious war that you mention for some reason…

    And this is the first case I’ve ever seen a puppet on the throne as a good thing.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Sounds like somebody hasn’t seen the all Muppet rendition of King Lear.

  • Pepper_the_Sgt

    Shotoku probably wins, but Yoshimasa also had a strangely huge influence on Japan. He’s pretty much responsible for the tea ceremony, No theater, ikebana, ink paintings, and shoin-zukuri architecture. But man, did he suck as a shogun. The Sengoku period started while he was shogun, but he was kind of too much of a wimp to do anything about it. I would like to see Tofugu to a post about Yoshimasa sometime.

    For anyone curious, I recommend reading “Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion” by Donald Keene. I read it for a college class and found it surprisingly enjoyable.

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Thank you, couldn’t have put it better myself ^_^

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Describe this “strange image”…

  • ジョサイア

    狐 =  ❤ O❤

    化け猫 =。。。怖がっている!Dx

  • Joel Alexander

    Rather than simply “not being in opposition”, the Buddhists actually presented the Shinto kami as Buddhas appearing in a way that the early Japanese could understand. Essentially, Buddhism absorbed Shintoism – there was no separate Shintoism until the Meiji Restoration, when the Meiji Emperor needed a state religion to solidify his power. Since Buddhism had been the state religion for the Tokugawa government, the emperor reinstated Shintoism as a secular religion (if that makes sense), and basically went “hey look, these are the native Japanese traditions we’ve been following all along.”

    So, yeah. Modern Shintoism dates back barely a hundred a fifty years. Not really related to the article, but since it got mentioned, I thought I should clarify.

  • gongen

    Sorry I don’t mean to be a troll at all, but this is a really weak article; your understanding of the interplay between shinto and buddhism is very, very superficial, in fact it’s mostly just incorrect. It’s a far more complex and interesting dynamic than you have it here that involves indigenous magical practices, shamanism, buddhist cosmology, nationalistic trends, and many monks and priests of extreme genius… I would recommend you read some good books on the subject before you write more posts like this about a very complex subject!

    Try this scholar for an influential part of the discourse in general:

    Or try this book, it’s a good solid exposition:

  • HatsuHazama

    You know, the Shinto soldiers on one side, in a large fortress, with the beautiful Buddhist monks trying to hit the exterior with prayer slips and such.

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    The focus of the article was on Shotoku Taishi, not on the dynamics between Shinto and Buddhism. I was not trying to elucidate the nitty-gritty details between the two at all.

    The material for this post was mostly from “Giants of Japan” by Mark Weston, and I took it on good faith that his data was sound. While I do try to ensure that what I write is correct, please remember that this is a blog post, not an academic paper.

    I have a whole other life outside of Tofugu; when I write I have to make do with whatever limited time and resources available. I wouldn’t, for example, have the time and money to spend on that book, although I am sure it is an excellent read.